Are Google's moves creeping you out?

Search giant helps people view things from the street as well as the sky. Some privacy advocates worry that it's going too far. Photos: Google street views hit home

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read
One lazy afternoon, Maer Israel and a colleague ducked out of work to have a double espresso at a nearby cafe in San Francisco.

Several weeks later, the information technology manager at the French American International School was alerted that a picture of him sitting at the cafe could be found on Google's online map as part of the search giant's new street-level photo view.

"The HR manager ran into me in the hallway, and she pulled me aside and...said, 'Do you know that there are cameras everywhere?'" Israel recounted. "Of course, I was a little freaked out because it's the HR person telling me that we got busted having a coffee next door...My mother is surprised I haven't been fired."

Google's recently unveiled Street View stunned many with its photos of the unsuspecting, from a man climbing a front gate to another walking out of a strip club, but it's hardly the first time the company has compiled a massive database of material that some would want to remain private. Indeed, Google has for years been storing every Web search and analyzing the topics of Gmail so it can serve customers with related advertisements.

News.com Poll

An ogling Google
Are you worried about Google invading your privacy?

Not at all.
It's worth the trade-off for the information I get.
Not sure, but Google Maps Street View kind of freaked me out.
Yes, definitely.

View results

But now that Google is serving up images from the sky with Google Earth, creating street-level images with Street View and tracking customer behavior in cyberspace, some are starting to ask: how much is enough? As blogger Michael Rasmussen wrote in a comment about Street View on the Boing Boing blog, "Damn right, it's creepy."

Saturday, the British activist group Privacy International released a scathing report that said the company is "hostile to privacy" and ranked it the lowest out of nearly two dozen major Web sites when it comes to privacy issues.

Google Maps Street View was singled out. "Techniques and technologies (are) frequently rolled out without adequate public consultation (e.g. Street level view)." Google also has a "track history of ignoring privacy concerns," the report said. "Every corporate announcement involves some new practice involving surveillance."

In addition to Google's "aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques," the bad grade was given because of the "diversity and specificity" of Google's products and the ability to share data between them, as well as the company's market dominance and number of users.

Google Maps Street View

Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel who oversees privacy issues at Google, argued that the report was inaccurate and misleading, and complained that Google didn't have a chance to respond to the criticisms.

"The allegations in the report misunderstood a number of our products," Wong said. "More importantly, when you look at the actual ranking, it misses the point on a lot of things we do very well."

For instance, the company partially anonymizes part of the Internet Protocol addresses of searchers after 18 to 24 months, while no other company has publicly stated their retention policy, she said. In addition, Google was the only one of 34 Internet companies to challenge a U.S. Justice Department subpoena on Web searches last year, Wong added.

Search engine expert Danny Sullivan sided with Google in his blog Search Engine Land but wondered if Google is entering new and increasingly controversial territory with its latest product.

"The reality is, it can expect much more of this type of treatment as it continues to monitor much of what we do" and accelerates its efforts at personalization, Sullivan wrote. "To save itself, I'd like to see Google appoint a privacy czar, someone charged with...assuming the worst about the company and diligently working to ensure users have as much protection as possible."

While Google doesn't have an official privacy czar, it has an associate general counsel for ethics and compliance, and 14 staff lawyers who serve as product counsel, supporting the development of products from inception to launch and reviewing them for privacy issues, Wong said. "We ask at the very start of the design of a product, what kind of information are you thinking of collecting, and what are you going to do with it?"

Before releasing the street-level map view, Google reached out to domestic-violence organizations, she said. "With Street View, we gave a lot of thought to what the privacy consequences would be. We built a flagging mechanism in it so users could report inappropriate images," she said. "In the first few days after launch, we had a very small number of flags. That rate is decreasing every day."

Google executives and product managers had numerous discussions about the privacy and ethical implications of the product before releasing it, Wong added. "We tried to balance offering a strong, useful product for users with the privacy implications of it," she said.

The company's vision with the service was to "put people in touch with what a street looks like, (to) get something more realistic and helpful to me than lines drawn on a street map," Wong said. The street-level view is helpful for looking at a city before going on vacation, viewing a neighborhood before purchasing a house and serving as an additional visual aid for driving directions, she said.

While it certainly does that, "it's a trade-off," said Christopher Slobogin, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. "A lot of people want this stuff. They don't mind giving up a little bit of privacy to be able to get it."

Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, is one of them.

"I don't want to trivialize it, but I also don't think it should be blown out of proportion. It raises some interesting questions, but at the end of the day, it's not the kind of thing that leaves me sleepless at night or leaves me outraged," Solove said. "Google could be a little bit more careful about what they're doing, but I've seen much, much worse."

But what is seen as a helpful online tool to one person can feel too close for comfort to someone whose face, license plate or comings and goings end up displayed on Google Maps.

"It used to be (that) your divorce records were public but sitting in a courthouse. Now they're on the Web. Your house used to be visible on the street; now it's visible from anywhere on the planet," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Internet security firm BT Counterpane, who has written extensively about privacy and security.

"Now it's on the Web, and anybody can see it forever, and that's just different," he said. "There are some very deeply philosophical privacy concerns that we, as a society, need to address."

Ultimately, Schneier, Wong and the legal experts agreed that laws should be updated to address the issues that technology advancements raise. New inventions have always driven privacy legislation. For instance, the advent of photography and the widespread circulation of newspapers in the late 1800s led to the first laws protecting privacy between individuals in the United States, said Ken Gormley, professor of constitutional law at Duquesne University.

"It's the kind of thing state legislators have to grapple with," Gormley said. Meanwhile, constitutional protections cover government intrusions of citizens' privacy.

"The bottom line is, you are fair game if you are in public," Slobogin said. "If it's just a random snapshot of one moment in a person's life, I think that's something we've got to put up with."